How Great Strategic Planning is Like Jazz

When I turned seven, I decided that I would be a far more interesting person if I learned to play the piano. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to convince my parents to let me give it a try. My mother showed her support by immediately signing me up for lessons with the church organist, while my father showed his by buying me the absolute cheapest piano he could find East of the Mississippi: an upright monstrosity that looked and sounded like an ageing boxer who’d been hit in the head one too many times. I think he paid $17 for it.

Surprising to everyone, I really took to it; and when my mother was told I had “some talent,” my parents bought me a shiny new piano, which I sat at for the next 11 years, working my way through Bach, Chopin and thousands of hours of Hanon and Czerny exercises. Over time, I came to respect the structure of classical piano and appreciate the musical foundation and skills it gave me. Despite that respect and appreciation, however, I always felt an urge to play “out of the box” and stretch myself musically. I just never had the confidence or the knowledge to do so.

Learning a new music language

Last summer, I finally took the plunge and started taking jazz piano lessons under the tutelage of Bob Murphy: a Jedi master of both music and life. Studying jazz piano has been a sometimes-frustrating experience, as I learn what feels like a whole new musical language. But it’s also been liberating as I become increasingly confident with stepping beyond the framework of my classical training to follow my musical intuition, even if doing so is, at times, incredibly messy.

The deeper I get into jazz piano, the more I see the parallels between it and really great strategic planning. Truly transformative strategic planning can get messy. It’s volatile, iterative and sometimes hard to pin down. It is a combination of logic and magic; science and art; head and heart; rigour and imagination; numbers and narrative. It is an analytical endeavor, but also a highly human one, recognizing that when those taking part in strategic planning put humanity into the process, what comes out of it will better resonate with the employees on the front lines who are instrumental in bringing those plans to life.

Too often I see strategic planning drift away from human nature and towards the seemingly safer harbours of reason and logic, where it then drops anchor. It’s the type of strategic planning that gets bogged down in models and metrics; the type that uses research to tell those involved how to think versus informing and guiding their thinking; the type that results in a mission statement, brand positioning or corporate values that employees can understand but can’t truly embrace, because it sounds like a textbook talking to them instead of a fellow human being.

Don’t get me wrong; I greatly respect rigour, analysis, models and metrics and feel they are an integral part of sound strategic planning. They just can’t be the only part. Companies and organizations going through strategic planning need to be willing to immerse themselves in the unpredictable and messier waters of human nature instead of trying to rationalize their way around them. They don’t have to stay immersed forever, but they should certainly swim around for a bit, having the faith that if they do, something more meaningful, unique and compelling will come out of it.

Working in harmony

Human nature needs to be part of the strategic planning process from the beginning so it can work in harmony with more rigorous analysis, not against it. By bringing humanity into strategic planning we recognize that some of the answers to tough strategic challenges lie buried beneath our individual life experiences and collective intuition; we just need to be willing to dig.

This is where the magic often comes from: from within us, our lives as professionals and as people. Great strategic planning finds a way to tap into that magic and let it loose, even if doing so gets a little messy. Once extracted, that magic can be blended with more logical notes from the planning process to create a tune that is infinitely richer and more compelling: a tune that will ultimately ring in the hearts and minds of employees who are crucial to bringing the outcomes of your strategic planning work to life. As the late, great jazz musician Charlie Parker, once said, “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

Now that’s music to my ears.

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